How to Protect Downtime (and Why It’s So Important)

How to protect your kids downtime

How to protect your kids' downtimeHey! It’s sports-and-activities time: clubs, drama, robotics, teams, competitions and tutoring and art classes and okay, take a breath. But everything is starting! It’s time to schedule them all!

Or not. Take a big breath, and maybe—if it’s not too late—set down the pen with which one fills out the forms to sign up the child for all of the above and permit everyone involved to administer emergency aid should chess club take a dangerous turn. Because there are a ton of opportunities available for our kids, and I wholeheartedly get the desire for them to try and experience them all. I too a) would love to learn pottery and robotics myself right now b) loved auditions and play practice like crazy myself or c) deeply, if wrongly, believe that I really would have liked to learn to play an instrument or be on a sports team as a child.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, those are three totally wrong reasons for signing a child up for an activity right there (because you secretly want to do it, because you once loved it, or because you think you wished you had learned it young).  But I’m sure you’ve got that, actually. I have faith that you aren’t projecting either your hopes and dreams or your own youth onto your kid, or pushing them into activities for resume-building purposes, or anything like that.

So this isn’t about why your child is perilously close to having two after-school activities for every day of the week and three each for Saturday and Sunday. It’s about why they shouldn’t—and how to create a sane schedule for your child and your family, and help your child learn to do the same for herself.

How to Protect Downtime (and Why It’s So Important)

There are only so many hours in a day. We can’t do everything, and our children can’t do everything, either. Making realistic choices, and drawing realistic limits, is key to feeling good about the daily patterns of our lives.

There’s so much out there, and for many of us, most of it involves things we didn’t have access to as a child. It honestly is hard to resist planning for our kids to rush from chess club to gymnastics just to fit it all in. But down time is important too. Denise Pope, one of the authors of “Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids,” told me that young children need an hour of play time (not homework time or bath time or dinner time, play time) for every after school scheduled hour. Teens need that space too, but in their case, they need to be able to chill in their rooms or hang out with friends.

If on Tuesday she does chess club from 3-4, soccer from 4:30-5:30, has dinner from 6-7 and does homework from 7-8, with an 8:30 bedtime, playtime and downtime got totally shorted. That’s fine if Monday and Wednesday afternoons are free, but if every afternoon, or even four afternoons a week, look like this, then your child isn’t getting the time she needs to hang out with friends and siblings, explore her inner self, and discover her own interests.

Commuting time does not count as down time. Organized after school care does not count as down time. (I know. That’s tough. But it’s almost always true.) Clubs and practices and study hall do not count as down time. What does count? Any time your child can spend in a place of his or her choosing (or possibly, depending on the child and the circumstances, your workplace), doing the things he or she finds to do, whether that’s Lego or an art project or a game with others or just lying on his back in the dining room, tossing a ball in the air under the table. (I’d argue for firm limits on screens during down time, but that’s a topic for a different email).

That’s it—but it’s so important. Down time is every bit as important as any sport or lesson or opportunity you can come up with. Kids without it aren’t learning how to make their own choices about what to do and when to do it. In the short run, that leads to the deadly “I’m bored” when rare free time does pop up, but in the long run, it means children arriving at college, but still looking to outside forces to tell them what to do next and when—but really, down time is when children and teenagers figure out who they are and why they do what they do. You just can’t do that in the car in between violin and Kumon.

What if your children are in a full day program, or in a school after-care program every day? It depends on the program, and it depends on the child—for a gregarious child in a loosely structured setting with lots of free play, it might be fine, but for a child who needs quiet or alone time, down time at home is still important. A 4-year-old in all day preschool/day care is probably getting her fair share of play time and down time (and probably doesn’t need any outside activities anyway) but she still needs time to hear her own thoughts and set her own agenda when she can.

Some kids will protest. I have a fifth grader who would play every sport and join every club out of sheer enthusiasm; you may have an ambitious teen who thinks pushing the limits of sleep and time is the only route to success. But it’s really worthwhile to give down time a worthy, protected block on the schedule, and to include it in the choices and plans you offer your child. Your child may get it when you point it out: if you stay after school for clubs 3 days a week, and play soccer on the other two, when will you invite Sebastien over to play, or ride your bike in the driveway, or go swimming with Sam?

Or she may not. If that’s the case, it’s your job to make a healthy choice; one that protects down time and also allows space for the unexpected. Your child may be willing to push her own limits, and you may understand that. It’s hard to say no to the invitation to join the extra show choir or travel team. But I’m learning, as I make that particular kind of mistake, that there actually are other opportunities and other seasons, and there is also your child, able to breathe at the end of the day instead of rushing off to something else.